Social Business, The Enterprise Social Networking Data Party is Over
Enterprise social network community managers, step away from the data. Walk backwards slowly, one step at a time, and take a deep breath. It’s time to realize that the metrics and data displayed to you inside your analytics dashboard aren't creating value, and in fact, might be causing you harm.

Quantifying Community Engagement

Inside most enterprise social networking software, administrators have access to a set of measurement tools that quantify basic activities such as the number of users, messages posted, comments, likes and so on. As these numbers grow and shift over time, companies often use them to gauge the value of their community.

More posts this month than last month? Success. More and more users joining? We must be doing something right.

Community managers like using these numbers because they clearly quantify the efforts and results of something intangible -- usage and communication inside of a virtual tool. Without basic data and analytics provided by the software vendor, it’s often very difficult to explain to the powers that be that an abstract enterprise social network can offer value. How else are community managers to demonstrate success when companies demand that the data justify the annual license fee?

Sorry kids, but if this were an enterprise social network analytics party, I’d be the cranky neighbor who just called the cops to have it shut down. I’m the mean mom putting you on time out in the corner. I’m the bearer of bad news: the numbers and analytics that you see aren’t worth much on their own, and they in no way can reflect the actual value of your community.

Reading in Between the Data Lines

In fact, the data that you see in your analytics dashboard might actually be leading you astray, causing you to draw conclusions that are not true.

In a typical example, when the SVP of HR receives 50 “likes” on a post, but an equally well-connected IT manager only receives 10, it doesn't necessarily indicate that the content of the SVP’s post is better or more interesting, as the numbers might lead us to conclude. Research has shown that the hierarchical level of an employee is positively correlated with the amount of interaction that his or her posts receive inside a social network.

In this example, the available analytics may lead you to believe that your SVP has made a very good and popular point that should be investigated further, but in reality, the quantity of interactions around her message may be nothing more than a reflection of our natural tendency to want to interact with someone more important and powerful than ourselves.

The true value of an enterprise social network is not reflected in the measurable data that is presented to you in a dashboard, but rather in its ability to strengthen the informal social network that creates interactions and fosters the completion of work inside your company. But therein lies the problem: we cannot accurately measure their value with traditional corporate metrics that make sense to executives and that are used to measure most business endeavors.

While the data presented to you can serve as a quick health-check of the community by giving you a pattern of usage, and can surface influential people and popular content that may be interesting, basic usage data should not be used to demonstrate the value of your community. This creates quite the conundrum, then -- how DO you accurately reflect the value in your enterprise social network?

Learning Opportunities

Separating Value Creation from Value Capture

The best way to explain the real value is to look at a 1975 alternative energy theory called The Clothesline Paradox. It states, “You put your clothes in the dryer, and the energy you use gets measured and counted. You hang your clothes on the clothesline, and it ‘disappears’ from the economy.” Simply put, when you dry your clothes using a physical appliance, you can see that it costs you US$ 100 per year. However, if you dry your clothes on a clothesline, there is no measurable cost to you. In both cases, you receive the same benefit – your clothes are dry, and you can wear them. But only one method of drying your clothes allows you to actually measure the cost of the value you received.

It’s the same idea with an enterprise social network. The Clothesline Paradox shows us that we must separate the concept of value creation and value capture. An enterprise social network creates value by enabling your employees to connect more quickly, by strengthening their ties and creating cohesion, by empowering them and giving them a voice. But there is no way to actually capture this value in a true numerical sense, especially not from the analytics that are made available to you inside your enterprise social network dashboard.

The real value of the community is felt outside of the community, when people accomplish work and enjoy their job. Value is captured individually, in teams, and overall as a company, but not in a highly measurable way. Attempting to assign numbers to the value created in an attempt to quantify or capture something just to be accounted for on a spreadsheet is the entirely wrong way to think about your enterprise social network.

Ultimately, the enterprise social network data that you see about likes and posts is interesting. It is important. And it should be shared with executives and teams in the right context. Your community data quantifies activity, but not value.

With that in mind, companies can begin to appreciate the fact that the ultimate benefit of an enterprise social network does not lie in the numbers that it presents. It is harder to explain, but ultimately, forward-thinking companies will understand that the data you see is not the full story.

Title image courtesy of Everett Collection (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Read more from Carrie in Playing the Enterprise Social Hunger Games: May the Odds Be Ever in Your Favor